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Edition 28

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Memoir

Home is where the heart is

COME CLOSER WHILE I tell you this. Let me whisper in your ear. No one likes a dissenter. No one likes a deserter. I can't say this too loudly. So huddle up while I tell you a secret.

I am leaving Dorothea Mackellar's sunburnt country for snowflakes in the north. I'm crossing the equator, because Down Under can never be home to a woman who wants to be on top. I am turning my back on Australia Day for Martin Luther King Day. I may even prioritise Thanksgiving over Christmas. And on the fourth of July I will be out celebrating a different red, white and blue. The greenback might be in strife but the rainbow-fish coloured bills of our currency are a joke everywhere in the world, except New Zealand. ‘Advance Australia Fair' doesn't even come close to the ‘Star Spangled Banner'. And before you ask, yes, I know all the words. I even know the second verse by heart. So much the worse. We may ‘toil with hearts and hands to make this Commonwealth of ours, renowned throughout the lands', but it can't compete with ‘Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave / O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?'

So goodbye to yellow, sun-bleached grass. Goodbye to water restrictions. Goodbye to all that, I say.

WE BOUGHT A house in Salem, Massachusetts, last week – near Pickering Wharf and where the ferry leaves for Boston. Ye Olde Pepper Companie is around the corner and Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables is down the road.

He told me we didn't have to move right away. But I could tell he was mentally packing his suitcase. And mine. A colleague once said that he was an American trapped in an Australian body. So I guess that part of him was returning to a place he called home. I still call Australia home. And supposedly there is no place like home. Except, perhaps America.

I haven't packed my suitcase yet. I'm not the kind of person who can pack up her troubles in her old kit bag and smile. It will be a wrench to leave. I don't deny it. I won't be able to take things like the dining suite I bought with my first month's pay. Or the partitioned Pilbo coffee table with one missing screw that holds my fondest memories under glass. And what are my fondest memories now? I have been collecting little pieces of Americana. I have gambling chips from Las Vegas and matchboxes from our favourite restaurants in Boston. There is the menu from the place we had dinner at on New Year's Eve in San Francisco and a photo just after he proposed to me at Utopia, in Washington, DC.

The T-shirts I wear and the charms I have on my bracelet will be all wrong when we move to Salem. I need to collect Australiana. Maybe I should buy an Akubra and a Drizabone. I should have an Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge charm. What kind of charm do you buy to commemorate Melbourne? The jeweller tells me: ‘a tram'.

We live in an apartment in Moonee Ponds. The shopping centre has framed Dame Edna Everage's photograph and displays it outside Kmart. And there is a restaurant called Edna's Table next to the two-dollar shop. It seems most people here don't know about her bitter satire exposing Moonee Ponds as the most ordinary place on earth. There are few things worse than ordinariness. And let's face it, Barry Humphries got as far away from Australia as he possibly could. He returns only to humiliate crowds of adoring fans, for the odd fat cheque. But I like the cafés in Puckle Street. I like the caramel cream cake at Delphi and the calamari salad at the Junction Tabaret. That was enough for him once. He'd put on a Quaddie and we'd play rapid roulette using our favourite numbers. We have different philosophies, though. He thinks if there have been a string of reds in a row, the next will be black. I keep going. I like to roll. Should I risk it all and roll with him?

 

AT THE WITCH'S Brew in Salem I drink double Scotch and coke while the bartender tells us for the third time how he nearly went to Australia but went to the Bahamas instead. I'd probably choose the Bahamas over Australia for a holiday. I think it's more exotic. But then, Americans generally think Australia is exotic. I think of Australia as the outback, dry and dusty. It's odd that I don't think of the Great Barrier Reef and scuba diving. I think of Uluru and the red earth. And I've never been to the Northern Territory.

The bartender at the Witch's Brew gives me a drink that he describes as a ‘heavy pour'. I drink it quickly and order clam chowder. There is nothing finer than Massachusetts clam chowder. There is no equivalent in Australia. Clam chowder is delicious.

He orders bacon, eggs and corned-beef hash. If he were writing this, he would say that there is nothing finer than corned beef hash, that there is no equivalent in Australia and that it is delicious. When people find out we are Australian they ask if we throw shrimps on the barbie. I've never really understood this expression. I always thought shrimps were tiny prawns, most often found in fried rice. So they would definitely fall through the bars on my grill. And before they ask, I tell them that I have always greeted people with the far more American ‘Hey', rather than ‘G'day'. I think it's because I watch so much American television. I've never been a fan of Neighbours or Home and Away, and I shudder at the popularity of Packed to the Rafters and Underbelly. If that is the best Australia has to offer, it is destined for cultural oblivion.

The bartender asks me if I would like another Scotch and coke. He asks partly as a joke, because it is one o'clock in the afternoon, I have already had a pretty potent one and I look young for my age. I give him the thumbs-up. And that appears to be Australian enough to satisfy him.

 

EVERY MORNING WE walk to the Maribyrnong River. It's about 4,500 steps to the bridge. I know because he always wears a pedometer on his belt. It looks really nerdy and I ask him if he would like a pocket protector so he can wear pens in his pocket to cap off this look, and he smiles. I wonder if he will wear the pedometer in Salem. We pass the man who works at the Junction Tabaret and his dog, Cinnamon. Cinnamon rolls on her back for a tummy rub and I can't imagine not seeing her every day on our walk. Her owner sips strong coffee at Delphi. He is an observer, and sometimes I envy the way he looks so relaxed and content. When I drink coffee I worry I have been away from my email too long. I wonder if I will be the same in Salem. Sometimes I find it hard to sleep in America because, with the time difference, I am sure I am getting important emails that I need to respond to while I am sleeping.

We pass Chiba and I smell the sushi hand rolls. Every morning I think that I will get one for lunch, but I never do. I forget about it until the following morning. We negotiate our way past Stinton's, the card shop, with its oddments for sale on tables and stands, and past Modish, the stationery shop that has tried to copy Smiggle. Then it's over the train tracks and down the hill to the river.

Sometimes we see the Stick Dog, but not very often. He carries his stick in his mouth and, when he gets to the oval, his owner throws it for him and he retrieves it, over and over again. He runs so fast he overshoots the stick and has to turn around and race back to pick it up. But it's the Italian man and his two dogs, Soprano and Bianca, who are my favourites. Soprano, the chubby pug, puffs and snorts his way over to the rubbish dump, while Bianca plays with the birds in the park. Their owner calls them his son and daughter. I think of our ragdoll cats like our children. I feel an affinity with the jolly Italian man. I wonder where he will think we have gone when he doesn't see us anymore. Somehow it is too sad to tell him we are moving. And I realise that my home is a few hokey shops and strangers with their dogs, and I like it.

In Salem there will be dogs with sticks and far more corny shops to pass on the way to the Common. We will go to the CVS, the drug store, but it won't be as fun. We won't have to stockpile cold-and-flu tablets and aspirin because Australian pharmacies don't stock strong enough over-the-counter medicine; they will always be on hand. I won't have to try every American chocolate bar. Instead, I will crave Violet Crumbles and Chokitos. Sadly, Australia got rid of its own Polly Waffle. And I'll miss Twisties, Tim Tams and Vegemite. But I will be able to eat Lucky Charms every morning for breakfast, and it won't cost seventeen dollars because the box of cereal is imported. Imported things should cost more, but in Australia it is often so much cheaper to buy the Asian option and I can't always afford to buy Australian Made. And sometimes, even though they claim to be, they aren't made in Australia. I wish Dick Smith's Tim Tams tasted as good as Arnott's, but they don't. His peanut butter is pretty good, though.

There will be other strangers to bond with in Salem, and other men drinking coffee in cafés. We will go to the Peabody Essex for an overpriced snack and edge our way past the Cry Freedom actors in the square. Maybe after a few years we will roll our eyes and sigh when we hear the trolley bringing tourists. I'll be able to walk more comfortably along the cobblestones in my stilettos, and I might even grow to like the second-hand bookshop, with its books rising like stalagmites from every available piece of floor space. Maybe we will walk past the Elizabeth Montgomery statue and eat at Finz again. He will join the historical society and I might join the book club. I'm not sure about going to see sporting events. I don't go to see sporting events in Australia. I hate the AFL – the players and the way they are worshipped. No one worships people with brains in Australia. I will barrack for the Red Sox. Somehow in America, baseball brings people together. It's refreshing that everyone in the same area barracks for the same team. It will be our new world, but it will be far from home.

Currently I have to time my showers and keep them to four minutes. And I used to love the comfort of a long, warm shower on a cold night or a cool bath on a boiling-hot day. I can't wash my car with the hose. I have to water the garden before 7 am or after 8 pm. No sprinklers. Children in Australia have never known the joy of running under a sprinkler, or a slip-and-slide across the back lawn. I had a clown's head sprinkler and his hat used to rise up when you attached the hose and spin, cartwheeling water across the sky. In primary school, on days over 35°, our teachers used to take us out to the asphalt and spray us with the hose. It was a treat; we loved it. But it's different now. I wish I could lend some of the green of the Salem Common to the nature strips and front lawns down Holmes Road. The platinum grass crumbles into dust when we walk on it. I'm leaving. You won't see me for dust.

 

LAST WEEK WE bought a house in Salem. House prices are so much more reasonable in America. We bought a beautiful pale-pink condo and we're not afraid of losing money on it. How could we be? In my lifetime the Australian dollar has never even reached parity with the American dollar. When America is having a recession or a depression, we are still somehow doing worse. Or so it seems when I hand over my Australian dollar and get seventy cents back. When the Australian dollar finally hit ninety cents to one American dollar, we transferred our money telegraphically to our lawyer's bank. And now we own a house in Salem with a wooden deck and an attic.

He is excited about the attic, even though we have never seen it. He thinks we can use it for storage – things like our Christmas tree and some books. I wish we could take our fibre-optic Christmas tree that lists to the left. We have had it since we were married. One decoration boasts ‘Our First Christmas Together' in a heart. But we can buy another Christmas tree in America, probably a nicer one for less. America has a much better lead-up to Christmas than Australia. Macy's windows are incredible, not like the disappointing Myer windows this year, Olivia Helps with Christmas. It wasn't really Christmassy at all. And Dame Edna narrated, despite Barry Humphries hating Australia. Why are we giving him work?

When it snows I am going to stand on the deck of our Salem condo and pretend I am inside a snow globe. Maybe I'll twirl around like Winona Ryder's character in Edward Scissorhands. But what if I get dizzy? What if I click my heels together and say ‘There's no place like home' and I don't go anywhere, because Salem is my new home? What if I click my heels together and I'm not taken back to the Maribyrnong River, the Puckle Street cafés and the nameless men with their dogs? What if, despite everything, I'm not ready to leave Moonee Ponds?

He reads the Salem news online and researches shipping costs. He's here next to me, so come closer while I tell you this. Let me whisper it in your ear. I can't say this too loudly or he might hear. Huddle up while I tell you a secret: I might just stay. 


From Griffith Review Edition 28: Still the Lucky Country? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review